A Placemaking Journal
Selling Urbanism: Don’t be an Aristarchus
As placemakers, we know that the challenges of the built environment require more than just new ideas — no matter how clever, unique or seemingly innovative. That was the approach of the 20th century and — no spoiler alert required — it didn’t work out all that well. In retrospect, we know now that the ideas of the modernist revolution in planning were too closely tied to a particular wish list for how we’d like the world to work, rather than reflecting the complexity of who we really are — from our natural instincts and behaviors to the inconvenient links between how we connect, live together in community and, ultimately, survive for the long haul.
The takeaway? Ideas in the abstract just won’t cut it. They need to be rooted in deeper truths. They need to take what’s already proven generally effective, through eons of incremental evolution, and refine those lessons to address the challenges confronting our present.
Rooted innovation. That’s the stuff.
To me, recognizing our need to acknowledge these time-honed models that exist all around us and working tirelessly to rediscover the lessons they have to offer has been the greatest contribution of the practitioners who’ve collectively come to be known as new urbanists. They’ve devoted a good 35 years to unearthing what people historically have recognized and accepted as normative practice.
So everything’s cool, right?
Great, you say. We’ve transcended that troublesome hiccup that was the 20th century. We’re back on board with how to leverage the lessons of the past as we work to preserve and enhance our cities moving forward. We’ve got the context down. Now all we need to do is amp up the innovation, right? Get the ideas flowing.
Well… sort of. But don’t stop there. Because another thing history teaches us is that sometimes you can take an existing body of knowledge to extraordinary new heights and guess what?
Roughly 2,300 years ago, Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos pulled off something pretty impressive. Arthur Herman, in his captivating “The Cave and the Light,” describes:
To recap: Humanity invested two millennia advancing the species on the back of a flawed model. In the face of a powerful status quo, Aristarchus’s idea — ultimately proven correct — got zero traction.
“[Aristarchus] set out to study the summer solstice, the day in the calendar when daylight hours are longest. His observations led him to propose a completely new model of the universe and solar system, based on the hypothesis that the planets revolved around the sun and that the earth itself revolved every twenty-four hours around its axis. [..]
Aristarchus’s heliocentric theory was an astonishing leap into the future. However, it found no buyers among other Hellenistic astronomers. They took a straight-forward geometric, rather than dynamic, view of motion. [..]
It’s not known how Aristarchus answered what, given the assumptions of the time, were reasonable objections backed by the authority of Aristotle himself, or even if he did. In the end, Greek astronomers preferred to stick to Aristotle’s ‘celestial spheres’ to explain the movement of the planets and the stars. The earth remained the center of the universe for another two thousand years.”
There’s a pretty powerful lesson in there: Ideas alone don’t change the world. They need to be packaged and sold.
Selling an idea. To idealistic urbanists, I’d imagine it sounds kind of smarmy. But check in with folks in Silicon Valley — or pretty much any other industry — and ask them the value of an idea poorly sold. You’ll likely find alarming consistency in the answers. And not in a good way.
Yes, overall, planners have gotten better at articulating projects and the larger goals that drive them. They’re more adept at clarity, helping people envision certain outcomes. But by and large, they still operate with an apparent assumption that they and their audience are on the same page.
That’s not always true. And it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if it became less true in the coming years. Here’s why:
The urbanist proposition is nicely timed right now, as a variety of issues — energy costs, commute times, Millennial interests, etc.— have converged to make cities more attractive. People are seeking particular experiences and cities are delivering them. But now, in the course of our ongoing urban renaissance, a lot of cities are transitioning from the problems of failure to the problems of success. Increasingly, disadvantaged populations with limited political voice are sharing their surroundings with newly-arrived, more affluent populations. Populations more inclined to bring their NIMBY instincts with them when they move in-town. And act on those instincts when they discover they now reside in an environment inclined towards a state of evolutionary flux for the foreseeable future.
New issues are becoming more evident. Income inequality. Lack of affordable housing. Increasing density. Infrastructure modifications. Culture clash. And those are the kinds of things that lead people to dig in their heels and just say no.
The burden falls to those driving the change
One thing we know for certain is that, if you approach the city as though it were a suburb, it never adds up to a very good place. In order for the benefits of the city — economic, social, environmental, quality of life and, yes, spiritual — to fully materialize, we need to embrace city-ness. For many, that’s an entirely different mindset.
We need to make clear that, for example, increasing densities — so long as they’re balanced with things like meaningful civic or green space — helps fuel other desirable outcomes. Like more choices in transit. Or housing. Or entertainment. Or lifestyle. Or economic opportunities.
In short, we need to more effectively sell the idea that the city — in its purest form — is the ideal form of human settlement and, at least in terms of its potential, the answer to both what we want and what we need. Even if the manner in which it addresses those things is often counter-intuitive. Especially to people who’ve never experienced — as a resident — a thriving, traditional city and all it has to offer.
We’ve got proven, working models from which to innovate. We’ve got a whole new generation eager to do so. But what if, like in Aristarchus’ day, powerful forces of the status quo increasingly push back. What then?
We don’t just need ideas. We need to sell those ideas. Forcefully and with reckless abandon. We need the promise to be clear, and follow it up with tireless work in the trenches of advocacy.
Let’s not sprawl for the next two thousand years, only to ultimately discover we had a pretty good handle on how it’s supposed to be done back in 2014.
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